RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Even astute fans of retro cinematic classics may be unfamiliar with Billy Wilder's 1951 gem "Ace in the Hole". The film was a boxoffice flop in its American release back in the day but over the decades it has become regarded as a genuine classic and one of the best movies of its era. Kirk Douglas, in one of the truly great performances of his career, is cast as Chuck Tatum, a once-lauded reporter for a major New York newspaper, who finds his career on the skids. His cynical nature, overbearing personality and weakness for liquor has resulted in him being displaced to New Mexico, where- out of desperation- he convinces the editor of an Albuquerque paper to give him a job. Within hours, Tatum is bored by the sleepy atmosphere and passive nature of his co-workers, most of whom have no ambition beyond reporting minor stories of local interest. Things change radically when Tatum stumbles onto a crisis in the desert that could make for a compelling story. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is the owner of a cafe located on a remote road who finds himself trapped in a cave after venturing inside to look for ancient Indian artifacts. Tatum sees that rescue plans for the man are rather poorly staged by the local deputy sheriff (Gene Evans). He enters the cave at great danger to himself and makes a connection with Leo, whose legs and midsection are buried under debris. Tatum is able to communicate with him from a small opening in a dirt mound and he assures Leo that he will get food, water and cigars while he organizes a rescue team. Grateful, Leo looks upon Tatum as his guardian angel. However, it becomes clear that Tatum is using his relationship with Leo for his own selfish purposes. He sees the potential as one of those "child stuck in a well" scenarios that tends to galvanize the entire nation. By personally taking charge of the rescue effort, Tatum makes himself a national hero overnight, as hundreds of people stream to the remote location and erect a tent city in order to be on the scene when Leo is eventually saved. Tatum, fully aware of American's eagerness to embrace the bizarre elements of any story, also plays up the notion that Leo is the victim of an ancient Indian curse for prowling around sacred tribal grounds.
Tatum has some disturbing factors to contend with, however. The primary problem is dealing with Leo's bombshell, self-centered wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling in a terrific performance). She was already looking to get out of a boring marriage with a boring man and decides to leave town during Leo's moment of crisis. Tatum uses a combination of charm and threats to convince her that staying put and playing the role of loyal wife would be in everyone's benefit. His prediction comes true in the financial sense, as the Minosa's cash-starved cafe begins to burst at the seams with visitors due to its proximity to the cave. Ironically, Leo's life-threatening predicament is finally bringing him the financial success that has eluded him. While Tatum becomes obsessed with manipulating the crisis, he also finds that his dispatches from the scene and his exclusive access to Leo have put him back in demand as a writer. He bypasses his own employer to sell updates to his ex-boss in New York at extortionist rates. He also has a hot/cold relationship with Lorraine, who clearly has a submissive sexual aspect to her moody demeanor. She's excited when Tatum mistreats her, though it's never made clear if their relationship goes beyond the flirtation stage. Tatum gets some disturbing news when he learns that the rescue team can use an expedited method to rescue Leo. Not wanting to kill the goose who laid the golden egg, Tatum manipulates the corrupt local sheriff (Roy Teal) into ordering a more labored method of rescue, even though it will result in a delay of days before reaching the victim. The decision has startling consequences for all involved. To say any more would negate the surprising turn of events depicted in the film. Suffice it to say, the intensity of the story continues to build throughout, making "Ace in the Hole" a truly mesmerizing cinematic experience.
Criterion has released "Ace in the Hole" as a dual format Blu-ray/DVD. The quality, as one might expect, is up to the company's superb standards. The package is loaded with fascinating extras including a rare extended interview with Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute in 1986. In it, Wilder talks about "Ace in the Hole" and other aspects of his career. The film was an early directorial effort for him and the first movie he produced, following his career as one of the industry's most in-demand filmmakers. By his own admission, "Ace in the Hole" was a major source of frustration for him. The movie was ignored by American critics and audiences and even re-titled "The Big Carnival". In the post-WWII era, it was probably deemed far too cynical for U.S. audiences. In fact, the "hero" of the film is a cad, the leading lady is a self-obsessed phony and the local law officials are corrupt. Except for a few minor characters, there is no one in the film with a truly moral center. Wilder says he took heart from the fact that the movie was quite successful in its European release. The set also contains a 1988 interview with Kirk Douglas, who discusses the film and his respect for Wilder in a very informative segment. Most impressive is the inclusion of "Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man", a 1980 documentary by French film critic Michel Clement in which Wilder gives extraordinary access to his private life. We see him at home and at the office with long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond as they laze around trying to come up with ideas for future projects. Wilder comes across as a symbol of Hollywood's bygone Golden Age. Speaking in a thick Austrian accent with his ever-present stogie at hand, Wilder regales the viewer with insights about his family's escape from the Nazi occupation and his unlikely meteoric rise up the film industry's food chain. Almost from the beginning he was a hot property and would remain a revered director, producer and writer throughout his entire career. The set also includes a vintage audio interview with another Wilder collaborator, screenwriter Walter Newman and an insightful and creatively designed "newspaper" with essays by critic Molly Haskell and filmmaker Guy Maddin. Director Spike Lee provides a brief video "afterword" in which he extols the virtues of the film and also shows off a cool original lobby card that he treasures because it is signed by both Wilder and Douglas. Topping off the "extras" is a truly excellent audio commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard, who provides so many interesting background observations about the film that it will open any viewer's eyes to the latent meanings of certain sequences and images. Even if you consider audio commentaries to be dry and academic, I do urge you to give this one a listen. It's first rate throughout.
In summary, this is a first rate presentation of one of the most unfairly neglected American film classics; one that in recent years is finally getting the acclaim that it should have received on its initial release. Criterion has surpassed even its usual high standards.